Nine years ago this week, our family was in shock, facing down a future we couldn’t imagine or understand. Nine years ago we gazed into those beautiful almond eyes for the first time and could only see a troubled future for our precious, beautiful baby girl.

It was Margot herself who taught us to hope again. Her determination, her infectious smile, her sly, loopy humor, and her relish for life showed us how even our tragedies are shot through with unexpected light and grace. And she's given us plenty to celebrate ever since.  

Still, I usually struggle each year at this time as we mark that momentous event and remember the many tears shed. I recall how our girl’s arrival was not met with celebration and joy as it should have been. Instead, a haze of grief and fear permeates my memories of those early days.

This year, a friend’s precious gift to me was to inspire a surprise party in the park to mark Margot’s ninth birthday. The only thing Margot loves more than a party is a surprise. Put them together and you have one happy little girl.

The love and joy of the event soothed my soul more than I can explain and healed old wounds from those dark early days.  We were touched that friends gathered round us to celebrate our girl’s life and show that she's very loved indeed.

But the party wasn't about my motherly emotional needs. It was about Margot and her friends having a great time.

And so they played silly games,

ate cupcakes,

and made kites.

It was a prefect day for flying.

Even the youngest of the crowd got their kites airborne.

And no, the symbolism of the soaring kites wasn’t lost on me.  Happy ninth, Margot. This one may have ended up meaning even more to me than it did to you.

Camping: The Anti-Vacation

Last week found us in Door County, Wisconsin, camping at Peninsula State Park. Door County is on the peninsula that makes that cute pointy thumb shape on the east side of a map of the state, bounded by Lake Michigan on one side and Green Bay on the other. The surprisingly rocky coastline is punctuated by formerly rustic little towns now become faux-quaint nautical-themed tourist traps. But this only added to the ambience and the romance of the lingering memories of a proud seafaring culture that once thrived right here, somewhat incongruously, far inland in the American Midwest. We honeymooned here many years ago. Now, I wanted my children to see it. It’s in their blood, after all. Their grandfather and great-grandfather were once boatwrights on the shores of this great lake. 

The special treat for us this summer is that my mom (Grammers), who lives in Alaska, is staying with us. She is quite the adventure-woman and was willing to camp with us. So it was a lovely week, even if a little wet and chilly. 

Okay, very wet and chilly, actually. I’m not a born camper. It’s not really a vacation without room service and a concierge, is it? But being between jobs, a “camping vacation” seemed like a good idea, although the term is inherently oxymoronic, I now realize. What with the torrential downpours, the mud, the kids slapping each other while mosquitoes the size of  humming birds feasted on our flesh, it often felt more like “camping” than “vacation”.

Not that we didn’t have plenty of vacation moments, though. We shared some lovely family moments all together. Evenings with the whole family around the fire reading classic children’s stories aloud. Watching from Sunset Park in Fish Creek as the sun sank into the bay. Going out for ice cream. Hiking the trails and climbing bluffs. Going out for more ice cream. Treasure hunting in the surprisingly good little resale boutiques. Gathering wildflowers. Making s’mores over the campfire. Playing in the sand on the beach. Sleeping all together in our cozy little tent while the rain drummed on the fabric.

I’d rather recall these moments than I would that first morning when we woke up to find Miss Margot mysteriously vanished out of her sleeping bag. She had crept out at the crack of dawn and gotten lost in the maze of campsites that all look alike to a groggy 8-year old. We were reunited only through the kindness of strangers.

With time, I may forget those unforcasted cloudbursts that drenched our firewood and soaked our shoes. But I may even choose to recall fondly the seagull that stole our big soft pretzel right off our table as we sat there. 

Or Miles’ tween sense of humor, which has it's plusses and minuses, but when I see this picture, I can only think how much I love this guy.

At Wilson's famous cafe

We were together, very together, for eight days and seven nights. And you know what? We actually enjoyed it.

The Reluctant Gardener

This year I’m really going to do it. I’m going to get my garden in shape and enjoy it instead of feeling guilty every time I look out the window or walk through the neglected yard. This will require some rethinking of what I expect from my little plot of land. It’s glory days as a prime stop on our historic neighborhood’s garden walk (under a previous owner, of course) are long gone. But that’s okay. I’m going to embrace it for what it is. 

It seems cliché to say so, but there’s a metaphor here for my life. I didn’t sign up to be a mom to special needs kids. In my life as in my yard, I’m a reluctant gardener. When Margot was born, well-meaning people said things like “God gives special kids to special people.” I can tell you though, it didn’t feel so “special” to sit in numb shock across from one specialist after another as they obligatorily rehearsed their worse-case scenarios for my little girl’s life. It took awhile for me to embrace my new life for what it is because it falls so short of my otherwise pretty typical expectations.

Most people, even if they haven’t had an experience like mine, intuit that clinging to expectations as if they were entitlements somehow isn’t right. I know this because I could wallpaper my entire house in the copies of Welcome to Holland I’ve received over the years. It’s a very brief reflection by Emily Perl Kingsley which likens special needs parenting to taking a trip to Italy that mysteriously ends in Holland instead. At first it’s keenly disappointing. You feel entitled to see Italy. Everyone you know made it there. But soon you learn that Holland has tulips and Rembrandt's, and you realize you wouldn’t want to have missed their distinctive beauty.  The poem is really beautifully honest and poignant. You will always dream of Italy, but you need not mourn.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.
-- Emily Perl Kingsley - Welcome to Holland

Our house is on a city corner lot shaded by about a dozen trees. My garden is more Rembrandt than Raphael, more Holland than Italy. It’s understated, shady, and shall we say, natural. I had always dreamed of growing herbs and vegetables, but it’s not going to happen. I’ve tried. I get stringy vines where pumpkins should be, and tiny tasteless tomatoes and peppers that show up in late August, already spent with the effort. So much for my hipster urban homesteader affectations. I’ll just have to love my garden for what it is.
And just what it is I could never have guessed that winter long ago when we bought our house. I barely noticed that it had a garden. Even when the sellers took their leave from the closing with “Good luck identifying all that stuff in the garden!” I had no idea what personal transformation was in store. I’d never had a garden before. But each day that Spring brought new surprise as new plants sprouted, bloomed, and then ran wild. And so I became a reluctant gardener. 

And so I became a mother. I had no idea what was in store when I gave birth to each of my kids. I only reluctantly took to parenting these special little people. Those early days were filled with reading, research, support groups, therapy, and not a few tears. There was definitely more crying than rejoicing at first. Where were the happy-go-lucky baby days I thought I had every right to expect. Further into the journey, I wouldn’t trade Holland for Italy.  

There was a lot more going on in our garden than I first realized. Alongside the disappointment that it wouldn’t yield the edibles I wanted, came a growing realization that under its seeming haphazard wildness, there was a pattern and design more elegant and understatedly beautiful than I could have made myself. It turns out that a previous owner was a professional gardner at the Morton Arboretum. Although the garden hadn’t been cultivated in some years, evidence of underlying beauty and order were everywhere. 

I eventually made contact with this previous owner, who told me what plants where what, what to coddle, what to pull, and what her intentions had been in the original plantings. Her inspiration and love of the garden were contagious, but mostly she encouraged me to “just enjoy it.”

I found the same inspiration from fellow travelers in parenting, whether with special needs kids or without. People lovingly reminded me that my life wasn’t over and that my children were going to be okay. That I needed to just enjoy them.

Our parental hopes and dreams are ever in the shade of an uncertain future. But my leaf-shadowed plot of weediness and neediness speaks of a rough-hewn beauty like that of wooden shoes or windmills, of a curious grace that takes hold when we let go of what we expect and embrace what we’ve been so generously given.

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